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Preview for March: Mubarak’s fall shows new power of the ‘Arab street’
February 16th, 2011
New York (JTA) — Hosni Mubarak’s resignation from Egypt’s presidency after three weeks of street demonstrations raises many questions about the future of Egypt and its treaty with Israel, and for the entire Middle East.
The most remarkable feature of the developments in Egypt — and several weeks before it, the ouster of the longtime dictator of Tunisia amid similar protests — is the introduction of a major new power player in the Middle East: the “Arab street.”
Until recently the Arab street — essentially, popular will — often was little more than an irritant to autocratic regimes from Cairo to Tehran. These sought to repress its power or, occasionally, redirect its anger against some outside foe such as Israel or the United States.
When massive street protests greeted the dubious re-election in June 2009 of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the government’s deadly security tactics repressed popular will. The “Persian street” eventually was rendered irrelevant.
But the success of the Arab street in Egypt and Tunisia raises the prospect that Arabs elsewhere will feel emboldened to rise up and seek to overthrow their unelected leaders.
Protesters in Yemen and Jordan already have staged massive demonstrations against their governments. Smaller protests have taken place in Algeria and Syria.
In Iran, the government is trying to keep a budding protest movement in check for fear it will redirect its rage toward the regime in Tehran.
For Israel and its allies, the ascendancy of the Arab street could be a game changer.
While Israel has cultivated relationships with the leaders of many of these countries — in some cases, as in Saudi Arabia, with Washington as an intermediary — the Arab street still largely reviles Israel.
In Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries that have full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, professional unions still maintain a boycott against any interaction with Israeli colleagues.
A 2009 Pew Research Center survey conducted in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon showed unfavorable views of Jews at 95 percent, 97 percent and 98 percent, respectively.
So if the Arab street becomes more powerful, Israel’s relationships in the Middle East will be at risk. For example, the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia see eye to eye on such issues as the Iranian nuclear threat and the rising danger of Shiite power, including Hezbollah’s ascendancy in Lebanon. But the Saudi people — like the people in Egypt and Jordan — are more inclined to view Israel as a hated foe rather than a country with which they share common cause.
On the other hand, if countries such as Egypt or Tunisia were to become true democracies, they could become inherently more stable and less belligerent toward Israel.
In this respect, Turkey could be the model. It is a democracy in a Muslim country whose relationship with Israel persists even at times when its government and people engage in harsh, anti-Israel rhetoric.
Until the situations in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East sort themselves out, it seems there is little Israel can do but wait, watch, and pray for the best.
That’s not the case for the United States, which wields influence in Arab capitals through a combination of aid, trade and diplomacy. With future control over the reins of power uncertain, however, the United States is trying to keep all its options open.
The balancing act the Obama administration has tried to practice throughout the Egyptian crisis offers a prime example.
With Egypt a longtime reliable and stable ally, President Obama did not want to alienate Mubarak in the event that he stayed in power. Otherwise, Washington would be viewed as a turncoat, not a friend.
But if the street were to triumph, Obama did not want to be seen as an enemy of Egyptian popular will.
With Mubarak now gone, it’s not clear whether Obama’s balancing act worked — especially because it’s not clear who will lead Egypt.
If the Egyptian army controls power, either overtly or behind the scenes, the situation probably will not change drastically in the near term.
The army — much of it funded by $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt — is vested in its positive relationship with the United States and its working relationship with Israel.
Along with the Mubarak regime, the army has been key to the fight against Islamic terrorism; and it has helped contain Hamas in the Gaza Strip and kept anti-Israel elements in Egypt at bay.
The only thing that seems assured is that more uncertainty lies ahead, in Cairo and beyond.